Monday, January 15, 2007

An unsullied conscience

Andrew Sullivan, while certainly one of my most often read bloggers, is nevertheless very good for a laugh sometimes. In recent posts, he has defended his "evolutionary" change of heart with regard to the Iraq War and refuses to acknowledge that those who opposed the war from the beginning were right. It all began with his analysis of Bush's surge speech, followed by the comments of a "condescending" reader who argues that anti-war protesters were right from the beginning. Cue a snide riposte from someone presumably closer to Andrew's views, the focus of which is:
The crux of the problem is that stalwart opponents of the war were, for the most part, nothing like the sophisticated visionaries your reader describes. The case for war barrelled along in large part precisely because opponents of the war were unable or unwilling to make a persuasive, coherent case for opposing it, and instead associated themselves with vacuous slogans, wanker academics and unreconstructed anti-globalists who fear corporations and hate trade. This is not a winning formula for shaping American policy.
Andrew happily agrees, presumably having found a "reasonable" partner in this discourse:
I agree. A few people - James Fallows, Joe Klein, Brent Scowcroft, for example - opposed the war for sane reasons. They deserve kudos as much as I deserve criticism for not listening to them closely enough. But I went to the pre-war anti-war marches as an observer. I did not hear arguments about the difficulties of managing a sectarian society, nor questions about troop levels, nor worries about the impact of the war on Iran's status in the region. I heard and saw often reflexive hostility to American power, partisan hatred of Bush, and blindness toward Saddam's atrocities. I remember what I saw. And I feel as estranged from that reflexive position today as I did then.
Now this is just absurd for several reasons. First, it matters immensely whether we are talking about (1) opposing the war qua this war as an illegal and underhanded enterprise, or (2) opposing the war as a potentially FUBAR'ed catastrophe. (Coincidentally, Iraq is both.)

So, if you think that the war was illegal and mendaciously sold to the American people from the beginning, you obviously aren't going to tick off Andrew's pathetic ex post facto laundry list of questions when opposing the war: "I did not hear arguments about the difficulties of managing a sectarian society, nor questions about troop levels, nor worries about the impact of the war on Iran's status in the region." That would be like saying, "I'm opposed to capital punishment, but just in case it does happen, I'm going to focus on how the killing should be humane, well planned, efficient, etc." Furthermore, it is obvious from Andrew's writings that if the war had gone swimmingly, he would be fine with it now. Only the "gross mismanagement" of the war is the problem. Yet those he describes as attending anti-war rallies were and are not having this argument at all. Therefore, his sentiments are largely superfluous.

But there's another problem. It's all well and good that "a few people opposed the war for sane reasons" (conveniently, two respectable journalists and a conservative), but demanding, as Andrew's reader does, that anti-war types "make a persuasive, coherent case for opposing it...instead [of] associat[ing] themselves with vacuous slogans, wanker academics and unreconstructed anti-globalists" misconstrues both the situation and the terms of the debate. What's being demanded is a nice, liberal sit-down in which each party presents its evidence systematically, and presto! the best argument wins. If the reader and Andrew think that the lead-up to the war was conducted in this fashion, they are frankly bonkers. The demand that war protesters "make a persuasive, coherent case for opposing it" is especially insulting. The anti-war position was the de facto persuasive, coherent case. The onus has always rested on the Bush administration to justify this perpetuating travesty.

Furthermore, to think that these sorts of questions can be decided by well-educated, respectable individuals making coherent arguments is to inhabit a magical world. I wish that could be so, but this presidency has been so doggedly anti-democratic and authoritarian that people have been forced to have recourse to the (perfectly legal) avenues available to them: protesting, marching, writing letters, calls for impeachment. Yet somehow these people are the detestable rabble who refuse to counter the Bush administration's "persuasive, coherent case" with their own! To sum up: the administration marched off to war with complete contempt for the democratic process, the fair presentation of information, and the notion of limitations on presidential power. Yet those who would protest these facts are automatically discredited by their association with "wanker academics" and "unreconstructed anti-globalists." Well, fuck you too. This is what we will have to deal with from Sullivan and other "pro-war, anti-execution of the war" types: they increasingly point out Bush's incompetance and ethical failures, but they shriek at even the slightest hint of being associated with someone like Chomsky or the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition. Please, just don't let their individual reputations be smeared by such unsavory characters! How nobly then will they be remembered!


Blogger Robot said...

You're absolutely right to highlight this reader's claim about "the case for war barrelled along in large part precisely because opponents of the war were unable or unwilling to make a persuasive, coherent case for opposing it." On the one hand, this is an incredibly dangerous remark, part and parcel of what Matt Yglesias calls the "incompetency dodge." In this case, of course, the incompetency brandishment is not on the administration, but the anti-war left. "It's well and good NOW that you WERE right about the war, but that doesn't excuse the incompetent arguments you made which prevented people like ME from being wrong!" appears to be the logic of this kind of thinking. What's more, I completely agree that this kind of statement is just really bad history, presuming that -- as you point out -- two sides met in a room one day and the best argument more or less carried the day. Never mind incredibly bad, sloppy, journalism. Never mind administration and intelligence failures and distortions. Never mind surreptitious interest groups. Never mind the fact that arguments for and against the war passionately existed outside the borders of the United States. These matters are simply irrelevant. The neocons just carried the day with their genius. Period...

On the other hand, there actually is a disturbing grain of truth in this statement, which cannot be ignored by honest folks like we are: that regardless of how you slice it, the invasion of Iraq was supported by well over 50% of the American people. If we're going to go back time and time again to the origins of the war -- the neocon arguments, the fifth columnist leftists, the failure of the New York Times, etc. -- we cannot ignore the fact that at the end of the day the American democracy supported the war. It didn't have to (for God's sake, look at any other country let alone the 35-40% of our own population who opposed it), but it did. Influenced, without a doubt, by the pro-war arguments.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I agree with both of you for the most part; Sullivan seems to be dodging responsibility here. His job is to say what he thinks about events in an intelligent way, not to avoid being labelled. He's not a politician, he's a political commentator; it would serve him well to remember that.
But, as usual, Scantron, you load down your argument with too many radical assumptions and other needless baggage. In what sense is the war "illegal," and if it is, why hasn't any court declared it so? At some point, the "sane" political observer has to seek to understand terms like "illegal" in the same way that those who apply them understand them: i.e., "illegal" means that something can be stopped by a court and that responsible parties punished. Saying that something is "illegal" when there is no enforcing power which can or will stop it is nonsense, and it is exactly the kind of rhetoric for which the anti-war left can be criticized. The war is not going to be stopped because it is illegal, the war is going to be stopped when people force Bush to stop it.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Well, Robot, to answer your very good point about the popularity of the war (and I hope this doesn't undercut my argument): you provide a helpful list of why this war was agreed to by so many people--journalism, administrative distortions, interest groups, et al. When a war is so massively sought for by powerful people and also powerful people who should know better, the choices are skewed precisely because the choices are so limited, and the other position is so thoroughly discredited and mocked. I think that democracies with relatively transparent governments and informational resources *will* tend to see through the bullshit, but this war's bullshit could have coated the windshield of a Humvee and then some. The question is whether you can maintain this and then say that "the anti-war position was the de facto persuasive, coherent case." I think you can, simply because that case measured up to all standards of precedent and people were in fact making persuasive arguments about the destabilization of the reason, the tarnishing of our reputation, and other logical concerns. I think that many people who weren't initially bowled over by the specious evidence about weapons and al-Qaeda ties (and let's not forget that this was and continued to remain a startling number of people) were won over by the arguments of commentators like Friedman, who knew it was a war of choice (I'm sorry I use this phrase so much) yet somehow thought it would be a good, not to say moral, thing to do. So there you go.

Austin, if "illegal" is the only thing in my post which makes it overly radical, why don't I just substitute "illegitimate," a word from the same root but connotatively closer to the idea of "against precedent and general acceptance"? Presto.

This conversation is now gaining ground in other haunts on the interweb; for the time being I'll point you to the always measured Kevin Drum:

10:22 PM  

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